Hibernian are “absolutely not binning” their academy, according to chief executive Leeann Dempster but they are moving to bolster their first-team squad, even if that comes at a short-term cost for the current players and staff.
Rumours and negativity have enveloped the Easter Road club since chairman Ron Gordon, pictured below, outlined the “substantial and unsustainable” strain being placed on their recently-healthy finances, and revealed the decision to direct their more limited resources to the first team. This would mean pausing or scaling back on other initiatives, including the club’s youth academy.
Further news that academy coaches were to be laid off attracted an angry backlash from those who described any plans to mothball the development programmes as short-sighted.
That criticism was waved aside by Dempster, who detailed the method behind what others saw as madness.
“Look, we are absolutely not binning our academy. We are having to react to an unprecedented situation that we and others find ourselves in. We want to safeguard the young people and the academy for when Covid either subsides or we manage to find a way to live with it. It is certainly our plan that anybody who is involved in the academy at the minute will be offered another year’s opportunity, so that, whatever they have missed out on, they will get the chance to complete”
In an ever-evolving scenario, she said it was all about finding practical solutions.
“If full contact still isn’t allowed for our first team, then it is unlikely that we will have contact sport back for the kids [any time soon]. That is certainly the information we’ve got. So some of the programmes delivered by the academy need to change because we physically can’t deliver them just now. That doesn’t mean we are not committed to the young people or that we aren’t committed to the academy and the development of young players. It is just going to change for now.
“I have heard a lot about the youth academy and the fact we are walking away from that. It just is not true. But we are one of the 12 clubs being tasked with getting football started again in Scotland and there is a big responsibility on us to do that. The only way we can do that is to have our team ready to play football and the only way we can do that is with a bio-secure environment down at HTC [Hibernian Training Centre]. We can’t have a bio-secure environment if we have 106 kids and their families coming to a wide-open HTC. That is not compatible.
“We are a football club, so we need to be able to compete and we know that we either already have gaps or might have gaps in particular positions so we are in the market to recruit a few players. There is no suggestion of wholesale changes and we will do that as sensitively as we can but, at the end of the day, it helps everybody for the club to be stronger. If we didn’t bring in players, we would be entering the new season with one hand tied behind our back, so we need to try to improve the squad. I think we have been fairly consistent and fairly clear on that.
“We are not talking about 12 out 12 in, we are only talking about positions where we need to recruit. We also have some cracking young players, we just haven’t given them a chance to shine. We have players who are now 21-22 and, at any other club, they would be playing week in, week out, so this is the opportunity to bring them into the first-team fold to play week to week or have an impact from the bench. I think we will see lots of clubs do the same thing now and this is when we will really see the output of the work we have done in the academy in the last five or six years and we could see talent emerge.”
Other staff, from other departments, could be culled to free up finance for the first team, and players and staff who aren’t off-loaded are also being asked to take wage cuts, despite agreeing wage deferrals in April. The optics may not be great, but, with former St Johnstone winger Drey Wright set to be one of the first to arrive in Leith, and Kevin Nisbet still a target, Dempster sees such acquisitions as key to protecting the core business.
“I know some people might think these things don’t marry [signing new players at a time of redundancies] but I think they do. I think we can work with players and staff groups while still selectively and appropriately bringing players in to improve that group as well.”
With money to be made from players such as Martin Boyle and Ofir Marciano, whose contracts are winding down, Dempster conceded that she could not rule out members of the current squad moving on but she warned they would not be sold for less than their true worth and revealed that new arrivals would be brought in to plug any gaps, with the Scottish market the target market during this transfer window.
“When have we ever had a firesale?” asked Dempster. “Well, we are not planning on having one now.”
But having to slash salaries to fund someone else’s has not gone down well with all players, some of whom are said to be ready to snub the proposal and seek a transfer if necessary. If they do it will surprise Dempster.
“We have not had any of those kinds of discussions. This [consultation period with staff over wage and job cuts] is still in the early stages and we all know that squads move and evolve anyway. The squad we have at the start of the season, all those players won’t be in the squad come the end of the season. That is just normal. We are anticipating some movement in the squad, some in, some out, but I am hopeful that the players and the staff and everyone at the club can see what is needed here and come together and make the necessary commitments needed to get the club through this period. That is definitely the noises I am hearing. Everyone is in this together.”
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